Real Thing launches accessible news reader device, RealSAM

Monday, 23 June 2014 12:52pm

Media Access Australia spoke to Nick Howden, CEO of Australian technology company Real Thing, about the launch of RealSAM (Simple Accessible Media), a new device to help people with vision impairments access news and media services.

Media Access Australia: What does RealSAM do?

Nick Howden: RealSAM is a small handheld device which is the size of a small mobile phone. Using natural spoken interactions, users can browse a vast array of media content, and ask RealSAM to read out articles from a wide range of newspapers, play radio podcasts, or give information on the weather, time and location. All content is gathered online via 3G or Wi-Fi, without the user having to worry about computers or network connections.

Whilst other speech recognition tools can only work on a single task at a time, RealSAM can engage in interactive dialogue, and can handle more than one thread of conversation at a time. For instance, you can ask RealSAM to read the newspaper and while she's reading, you can ask her to speak more slowly, to repeat a section, or to move on to the next article. Or you can ask about the weather forecast, and then continue reading the article where you left off. This means that even users who have no vision at all can interact with RealSAM and access all of her features.

RealSAM is a standalone system and does not need to be plugged into a computer. New media content is updated regularly, so you can track the latest breaking stories on ABC News, or browse through more in-depth analysis with articles from The Conversation, while you are travelling around throughout the day. RealSAM offers simple, accessible media.

What’s the background to RealSAM’s creation? How did it come about?

RealSAM was developed by Real Thing. We are an Australian company based in Melbourne. Real Thing was formed in 2008 by a team of highly experienced entrepreneurs and IT professionals to develop and commercialise products using the latest advances in automatic speech recognition, speech dialogue systems and artificial intelligence.

After discussions with Vision Australia in 2011, we identified a community requirement for simple, accessible and timely access to news and information. A lot of problems that lead to blindness or low vision are age related, so people who are blind or low vision tend to be older. This group is not necessarily engaged with technology, so many of the technical solutions are not particularly accessible to them. It was this that triggered the idea for RealSAM — a very simple, natural speech interface to access media and information. RealSAM has a single button, and can be quickly learned by even the most techno-phobic user.

At the other end of the scale are the tech gadget lovers like Graeme Innes, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner. I demonstrated a prototype of RealSAM to Graeme in 2013, and he wanted one immediately. Although he already has many devices with which to access media, he loves the simplicity and speed of using RealSAM. He said to me the other day that he could pick up RealSAM in the morning and say, “Read me the Sydney Morning Herald”, and it was quicker than someone walking to the front gate to get their paper that is hand delivered!

Prior to RealSAM how could people with vision-impairment access news content?

Other systems for accessing news, podcasts and information, have typically involved:

  1. Getting a sighted person to read the news or information — this involves negotiating over timing, and which articles and sections you are interested in. Although it is nice to read with a friend, it reduces your independence.
  2. Listening to newspaper readings on radio stations such as RPH — requires being available at the particular time that the content you want is broadcast, and listening to the articles someone else decides are interesting.
  3. Downloading the information from a computer onto a DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) player or other device. This requires technical expertise and planning, and reduces the immediacy of the information.
  4. Technologically savvy people can search and choose content on the web, and read it via a screen reader. This requires the user to have expensive computer hardware and software, as well as the requisite technical skills. None of these things are simple when you are losing your vision, and you are also stuck sitting at a desktop computer at home.

How does RealSAM help overcome access issues associated with vision impairment?

RealSAM allows the user to pick up the device in the morning, confident that all the latest news, radio programs and a myriad of other content is automatically available to them throughout the day. They can easily browse through a huge amount of content, listen to favourites, or choose something completely new on a whim. RealSAM allows the user to browse, choose or discard content in the same way that a sighted person would, and be up-to-the-minute with breaking news or their favourite radio programs.  This offers a new level of independence for people who are blind or have low vision.

As an example, we had one of our trialists send us an email, very excited that she had read a story in the paper before her sighted husband. Prior to using RealSAM, she was reliant on him for all of her news, so this was a real breakthrough for her!

RealSAM is very easy to use, even for people who are not at all 'tech savvy'. It allows people who don't have the tech skills access to a huge range of news and media content where most would previously have had a very limited range to choose from, at best.

Being speech driven, RealSAM has some other key advantages over other solutions. For example, you can quickly search for content that you want, saying things like “find articles about the budget”, or “find me a podcast on astronomy”. Searching can be very difficult to do on other media players, if it is offered at all. RealSAM is also very personalised, and it remembers what you have read in the newspaper, and where you are up to in any number of podcasts you may be listening to. If you go back to these, then you will resume exactly where you left off.

What are RealSAM’s major features? How do they assist people with vision impairment?

RealSAM provides access to a wide range of newspapers and radio program podcasts, but can also tell you your current location, and the weather and temperature in any city around the world. The range of media content accessible is constantly expanding, as is the range of features and information. More details on the features and content available are on the RealSAM website.

When with RealSAM be commercially available?

RealSAM has been trialed and tested for almost two years now, and was first made available to purchase in March of this year.  People who are interested in learning more about RealSAM can contact our dedicated Help Centre on 1300 557 350.

The RealSAM help centre is operated by Jeenee Mobile (Community Connections Australia), which is a registered charity helping people living with disability for more than 25 years. RealSAM’s 3G data plans are through Jeenee Mobile, and operate on the Optus network.

The cost of the RealSAM device itself is $299, and the monthly plans start at $29. There is also a WiFi only plan for $19, if you wish to only access RealSAM while in range of a wireless network.

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